As his family grows, so does his desire to provide them "suitable accommodations," but he persists with his peripatetic ways, wandering from teaching fellowships to rentals in St. Paul and his wife's native St. Cloud and thrice Ireland with stints at his in-laws' house in between. He remains critical of the church and professes to be anti-clerical while two of his best friends – and one of his benefactors – are priests.
We also discover a man who enjoys listening to baseball on the radio, attending hockey games, betting on horses, playing golf and downing an occasional Hamm's ("the best of the better beers"), yet deplores much of American society. He finds fault with the glut of physicians: "popped out of the medical factories like horseflies in August." He checks out television in the '50s but declares "it's not worth it." And he lambasts advertising: "One would do well to sell one's soul to Betty Crocker, at an early age, for invincible ignorance."
There's plenty of the literary life included. With Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Anne Porter and Sean O'Faolain among his correspondents, Powers cites inspirations for stories, complains about bad reviews, details his struggles writing a novel and comments on other writers from William Faulkner to Graham Greene. In a letter to Robert Lowell, he divulges "a secret theory" of his that "action is better and easier when described not in chronological, realistic terms but as impression, with here and there a realistic effect." He also complains to his wife Betty, a fellow short story writer whose stories appeared in the New Yorker, about the state of Catholic literature: "Fiction is not taken seriously. . . we are still in a ghetto, Catholics who write, or even read."
There's a love story, of sorts, in the many letters courting his future wife, whom he proposed to two days after meeting in person, when he was 28 and she was 21. He had been smitten by her novel, which one of her teachers had sent him to read. He professes his affection for her earnestly but also lets her know that he expects her to cook for him, suggests she stomach his opinions without trying to bend them and patronizes her: "(Nelson Algren's novels) are probably too rough for someone as nice as you."
Powers' readers will recognize his characteristic sparse style and understated wit. Discouraged by the soft sales of his National Book Award-winning novel, he writes, "May large birds defecate on the heads of most of the reading public for not buying the works of J. F. Powers." In another letter to his good friend Father Harvey Egan, Powers comments on the bishop's homily at midnight Mass then adds, "By the way, he traded in the baby-blue Cad for a black Continental."
Whatever his personal flaws, Powers remains a writer of immense intelligence, insight and humor, which these letters again make known.
Rosengren studied with J. F. Powers at St. John's University and is himself the author of seven books, most recently "Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes."